Review | Lure of the Beach: A Global History

G.T. Dempsey


     A beach isn’t just a stretch of sand at the edge of a body of water.  It’s a source of our well-being.  Materially, it can be a life-sustaining source of mussels, oysters, crabs, fish and seaweed (and driftwood).  But, as a natural phenomenon, perhaps its impact on our emotional life is even greater.  The daily drama of sunsets and sunrises, the vast mystery of the neighboring sea, the flight of seagulls, the meditative pleasure of simply walking along the ever-changing water-line.  The lure of the beach to mankind is timeless.  Archaeologists have found ‘that a group of Neanderthal children cavorted at a beach in Normandy eighty thousand years ago.’  As our author drily notes, there is ‘a history of going to the beach.’

     My own history of going to the beach began as a child growing up in the dry central valley of California.  Family trips to the San Francisco bay area to visit relatives were trips of exotic discoveries.  There was Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf and, mounted along the promenade along the bay, telescopes through which, for a nickel (as I recall), you could peer out at Alcatraz in hopes of seeing a convict.  But, above all, there was Baker’s Beach.  Seashells and the occasionally-beached bulbous-headed seaweed whose elongated tails could be whipped like a bull-whip.  A treasure trove.  But, I learned that there was another side to a beach, altogether ominous.  In my first year in high school, a local newspaper ran an illustrated condensed serial of Nevil Shute’s novel, On the Beach.  Fascinated, I went on to read the novel itself.  Consequent upon a catastrophic nuclear war, the entire population of the Northern Hemisphere has already perished from radiation sickness; and the belt of deadly radiation is inexorably moving southwards, dooming mankind to extinction.  ‘On the beach’ is sailor slang for being unemployed, without a ship’s berth.  Shute transformed the phrase into a death warrant.  In the 1950s, his pessimistic portrayal seemed all too reasonable.  Decades later, on a trip to London, I found that the room at my club given me for the night was named after Shute; he had lived there during the war.  It was a notably small cramped room, bad enough for one night, much less to live in for years.  Perhaps, I decided, that was the source of his pessimism.

Book cover for "Lure of the Beach"
(UC Press)

     Certainly, it is not the story told by our book.  Rather, man’s ‘going to the beach’ is a history of our seeking health, both physical and emotional.  The first ever deliberately established sea-side resort was Baiae, on the Gulf of Naples, during Roman imperial times.  Medicinal hot springs and mud pools abounded.  The development of the town as a beach resort, however, was driven more by the seeking of pleasure than of health.  The place rapidly got a name for orgiastic vice.  The Roman empire in the West dissolved into barbarian kingdoms and beaches reverted to the haunts of hunters-gatherers and pirates.  Inland medicinal spas – hot springs and the like – continued to be patronized, however; and it was the discovery of the medicinal virtues of sea water which led, in eighteenth-century England, to the modern beach resort.  An Enquiry into the Right Use and Abuses of the Hot, Cold and Temperate Baths in England (published by a physician in 1697) taught that ‘cold water hardened the body, its organs and glands, and closed pores, keeping in important fluids and compressing “animal spirits.”’  The particular value of seeking such cold-water baths in the sea soon followed, and was canonized by the publication (in 1750) of A Dissertation on the Use of Sea Water in Diseases of the Glands, particularly the Scurvy, Jaundice and Glandular Consumption.  The list of diseases for which cures by sea-bathing – ‘therapeutic dipping’ – were claimed included leprosy, gonorrhea, ulcers and tumors.  No wonder that visitors began to flock to such sea-side towns as Scarborough, Brighton, Margate, and Blackpool in such numbers that accommodations including hotels and boarding houses sprang up and specialized transport was developed.  By the second half of the following century, over a hundred beach resorts were well-established in England.

       The author is a Senior Research Associate at the Huntington Library and his book is both engagingly written and thoroughly scholarly (some 45 pages of end-notes and a 14-page bibliography).  We are given the history of beach-resorts in the round, from the economy of such places, both macro and micro, to their social histories, first in England and on the Continent, then the United States, and finally globally.  Of particular note are the chapters on the impact of the Industrial Revolution (with the coming of the railroad and the concomitant democratization of what had hitherto been upper-class enclaves) and on the early evolution of the social practices and conventions which took root in such resorts, from husband-hunting rituals to the prevailing practice, in Victorian times, of nude male bathing (surviving today in Parson’s Pleasure on the Thames at Oxford), while women used bathing machines, small sheds on cart-wheels, which were maneuvered into the water by female ‘dippers’.  The historical illustrations of such practices, from some two centuries of beach resorts, are well-chosen.

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     The final two chapters do return us to the ominous.  After several chapters bringing us into the modern world (with the coming of the one-piece and, then, the two-piece bathing suit – and the prolonged public controversies over their scandalous ‘daring’ – and of suntan lotion and, finally, of the bikini and naturist beaches), we are given two monitory chapters:  the first on the (ongoing) fights over public access to beaches; the concluding chapter on climate change and the resulting sea-rise (as high as fifteen feet by 2300) threatening the world’s beaches.  Barbarians put an end to Roman Baiae; today’s science-denying barbarians threaten a far more comprehensive ending to mankind’s love affair with the beach.

Robert C. Ritchie The Lure of the Beach:  A Global History (University of California Press, 2021), pp. xiv, 321  ISBN: 9780520215955  $29.95 | Buy: Amazon (affiliate link)

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About the author
G.T. Dempsey
G.T. Dempsey is a Research Associate in the history of Late Antiquity at the University of California at Davis and, as a retired American career diplomat, he is also a commentator on American foreign policy.